Librarians have special powers. With the use of dramatic recitation, song and dance, interactive Q&A sessions and art – and a good story, of course – librarians can captivate any gaggle of children scattered about their feet. They make reading fascinating and make the library a central location for early learning. Story time is a childhood rite of passage, and children quickly learn about the special magic librarians use to make stories come alive.
Children with sensory processing challenges, however, rarely get to experience the magic of the library or that of communal story time. Kids with these challenges, which are often associated with an autism diagnosis, have difficulty coping with other people, bright lighting, loud sounds and other stimuli in their surroundings. They also have a tough time managing behaviors and emotions, which can result in extreme fidgeting, tantrums and other atypical behavior. This makes traditional story time strategies, as well as the more interactive options, challenging for them.
“Assistance is often needed to engage them and get them to participate in a task or situation,” says occupational therapist Desiree Gapultos of Boone Fetter Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The approach to a shared story experience must then be altered, with librarians ramping things up to engage some children and chilling them out so that others feel comfortable participating.
The good news is that several L.A.-area librarians are using their magic to address the issue. Rather than exclude children and their families from the benefits of the library and story time, librarians are hosting sensory story times and other creative sensory activities to meet children’s unique needs. Sensory story times are typically offered separately from baby and toddler story times, and depending on the site, kids with sensory issues attend on their own or along with families, caretakers, siblings and neurotypical children.
During these sessions, librarians incorporate popular sensory manipulatives, including weighted blankets, lap pads, beanbags, puppets, headphones and visual and tactile boards, allowing for multiple presentations of a story and giving children a variety of ways to access and engage in story time. “Anything the children can touch, feel and see will help the story come to life for them and allow them to participate in the occupation of storytelling,” says Gapultos.
At Buena Vista Branch Library in Burbank, children’s library assistant Donna Bandiera always uses a visual schedule that lays out the plan for story time. “It allows [children] to see everything I’m going to do that day,” she says, “and after we finish a task, they really like to remove that task from the board.”
At Duarte Library, librarian Jenny Gabel swears by the bubble machine she activates at the end of each session, as well as telling stories in three different ways: first using a flannel board, then a traditional story book, and then with the help of puppets.
At the Peninsula Center Library in Rolling Hills Estates, it’s not manipulatives that keep attendees engaged. The draw for children with sensory challenges is being allowed to freely browse the library one hour before it opens at monthly “Bee” Yourself Sensory-
Friendly Browsing events. Families say being in the library without the fear of being judged by others if their child becomes overwhelmed makes them feel at ease.
“Families often hesitate to bring children with developmental challenges to the library because they worry their child might vocalize too loudly or have disruptive behaviors,” says librarian Marisa Perley, “but after attending Bee Yourself, two families new to our library system reported that they actually got library cards for the first time.”
Many librarians say the biggest successes of their sensory story times and activities are the positive impacts they have on families and the opportunity for the magic of the library to be gifted in the power of a little card.
Pasadena librarian Marie Plug says families tell her they are grateful for the sense of community the sensory story time offers them and their children. “Parents often report that sensory story time provides them with a safe space to relax and enjoy a family outing without feeling judged,” Plug says. “They say sensory story time is a welcoming place where both their children and themselves are 100 percent accepted and finally feel a sense of belonging within the library system.” Plug also says parents often celebrate that story time gives them a chance to connect with other parents experiencing the same challenges they have, as well as the opportunity to simply watch their children “begin to learn and grow just like any child.”
Unfortunately, despite glowing reports from families, sensory story times can be hard to locate. With the limited resources and budgets of some libraries, there simply isn’t enough staff to take on the extra work and planning required for these unique sessions. Additionally, librarians who facilitate these sessions are not medical professionals trained to work with the population, so getting the programs off the ground can take time. Still, so dedicated are librarians to serving their local communities, they often read books on sensory challenges and attend seminars and workshops to educate themselves, partner with nearby schools that serve similar populations and apply for grant money to buy supplies for their sessions.
Surely this is further evidence of librarians’ special powers and of their determination to bring a little bit of magic into all of our lives.
A Sprinkling of Story Times
Here are a few sensory story times happening in and around L.A. Be sure to check the L.A. Public Library and L.A. County Library websites for up-to-date information and additional locations that might have sensory story times. You might be able to locate additional story times by visiting your local city or county branch library as well.
Altadena Main Library, 600 E. Mariposa St. The library’s Sensory Story Time happens every other Monday from 10:30-11:30 a.m.
Buena Vista Branch Library, 300 N. Buena Vista St., Burbank. Sensory Storytime takes place every other Thursday from noon-12:45 p.m.
Duarte Library, 1301 Buena Vista St. Sensory Storytime is held the second Monday of every month from 1:30-2:30 p.m.
Lamanda Park Branch Library, 140 South Altadena Dr., Pasadena. Sensory Storytime happens every other Saturday from 10-11 a.m.
Peninsula Center Library, 701 Silver Spur Rd., Rolling Hills Estates. “Bee” Yourself Sensory Friendly Browsing is available every fourth Saturday from 9-11 a.m.
LaCoya Katoe is a teaching artist and educator, a Voices of Our Nation Arts fellow and the mom of a 3-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter.